Fresh Coffee

As I finish decompressing from a long awaited weekend, one thought has been swirling through my mind. A dangerous situation to say the least: it’s never safe to let a thought linger. This past week was the SCAA’s Symposium and annual Event, a opportunity for industry professionals to gather, share and, well, drink coffee. The Event is a typical convention but the Symposium is quite different, it is more the likes of TED talks for the specialty coffee industry. This years topics where varied and interesting but I could spend all day talking about them so I’ll cut to the chase. Here I am, throwing around the term “specialty coffee,” and as was proven to me this past weekend, I, and many others, don’t really know what it means. What exactly do we mean by specialty coffee?

I listened to many assessments of the term this past week. Definitions included worlds like farmers, crops, fair trade, artisan, small, craft, relationship, etc. I found that most people were including terms that belonged to a particular step in the cycle of coffee, and were doing so arbitrarily. Sometimes definitions included the roaster and the farmer, sometimes not, sometimes they included importers, sometimes not, and so on. If we were to define specialty coffee this way, by assigning a name and adjective to every step in the process, we would end up with an essay for a definition. As Oliver Strand said at symposium “[The specialty coffee industry] has taken a very complicated subject and made it even more complicated.”

In an attempt to discontinue making coffee complicated [note I dropped the specialty :)] I have been thinking about how to define it in a way that makes sense, is accessible to everyone, and is encompassing of the people involved in the cycle. That’s the dangerously lingering thought. I’ve come up with freshness. Yes, fresh coffee. Thats what we do right? We scour the world looking for this years crop of tasty coffee, make sure it gets here as fresh as can be, roast it while it is still fresh, sell fresh roasted coffee, and sell cups of coffee that are fresh, all in a fresh and innovative way that appeals to our customers.

I find “fresh” to truly define specialty coffee in an accessible, all-inclusive way. This then poses the question: what is fresh? Ok this next bit might be more complicated than accessible, but bear with me.

We search the globe for tasty coffees that have been recently harvested and processed. That is fresh. Then we agree to buy some of this coffee, which is then packaged in burlap bags and it sits in a warehouse/container for a period of 1-3 months until it arrives at our roastery. This is not fresh. Doug Zell and Stephen Morrisey gave a great presentation about advancements in the supply chain, or rather the lack there of: “Why can mangoes travel from Chile to Chicago in 2 days but coffee takes 3 months?” This problem is tough, but has a solution. Even if it costs a pretty penny we should be willing to pay up for faster shipping to guarantee the quality of our product. We then receive the coffee and store it until we are ready to roast it. Not so fresh, but can be alleviated by receiving the coffee sooner, and perhaps standardizing storage conditions, another pretty penny. Then we roast the coffee and open-date it, meaning we put the date on which it was roasted. We do this because coffee never really rots or becomes dangerous to consume. It does however lose aromatic and taste value quickly, which in my opinion is the basis of specialty coffee: the taste of coffee and the experience it creates.

So how quickly does coffee go from “specialty” to stale after roasting? This is where I am truly stumped. What exactly is coffee staling, to what degree is it acceptable, and when is it not, if ever? Most say that coffee is best within 2 weeks of roasting, some say 10 days, some say 3 days. Some roasters put an expiration date on their coffee 9 months out. The SCAA cupping manual says coffee must be cupped within 24 hours of roasting but no sooner than 8 hours after roasting. So wait, we have to wait for it to “stale” a bit before its ok to taste? You can see how this can be confusing. Clearly whatever degradation is happening to roasted coffee has to happen to a certain degree before we can even taste it (and have your cupping be SCAA approved)! How do we know then when it has gone too long?

I know environmental factors greatly influence coffee staling, but I think that every roaster needs to re-evaluate what coffee staling means to them, their customers and in their environment. Personally, I have tasted coffees that are not at their best until they reach about 5 days of age and I have also had to wait over 2 weeks for some roasts to work as espresso at high altitude. I have also roasted coffees that are almost flat at 5 days of age.

Although roasted coffee seems like, and is even considered, a shelf stable product, it really is not. Roasted coffee is an ongoing chemical process that is pretty much uncontrollable. Sure there are ways to slow this process down, but coffee staling will eventually happen. I am having to revaluate what this means to me. I have taken the word of so many experts on how soon to consume my coffee but have never really tested it myself. In the next couple of weeks I will be roasting larger batches storing them under different environments, and tasting them as they age. To me, as of now, stale coffee is coffee that I once tasted and liked, and after a certain time under room temperature storage now don’t like. But that is so subjective.

When is coffee stale for you? Does it change with the type of coffee? How do you store your coffee? How soon after roasting do you drink your coffee?

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